The Other Side of the Valley | Barry Estabrook

from Gastronomica 11:4

By San Joaquin valley standards, Tom Willey’s farm is so puny that I sped past it without noticing. My mind had been swept away by the region’s agoraphobia-inducing sense of infinite vastness. Ruler-straight byways traverse miles of almond trees planted on precise geometric grids like perfectly drilled soldiers. Those give way to tracts of grape vines trellised in parallel rows stretching to the horizon, followed by green oceans of lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and alfalfa running to the base of distant blue-gray mountains.

There is a gritty majesty to San Joaquin, the southern half of California’s Central Valley. Route 99, the freeway that bisects it, thunders with the traffic of tractor-trailers that haul equipment in and agricultural products out 24/7. The geography beside the highway is marked by grain elevators and storage silos that soar like medieval turrets. Enormous piles of almond hulls (sold as cattle feed) rise in conical mounds as tall as five-story buildings. I passed warehouse after warehouse, each big enough to be an airplane hangar. Farm equipment dealerships broke up monotonous gray and whites with the yellow, green, orange, and scarlet hues of tractors, plows, combines, dump trucks, bulldozers, and Rube Goldberg contraptions whose purpose I could only guess, all seemingly designed to be operated by a race of giants.

On the surface, the San Joaquin Valley gives no hints that it is home to some of the most innovative food producers in the country. On a seventy-five-acre “patch,” as Willey aptly calls it, T & D Willey Farms grows fifty different varieties of produce: “everything from artichokes to zucchinis.” (More typically, his nearest neighbor raises a single variety of wine grape on 750 acres.) “Conventional farming approaches are just too brain-dead for me,” he said, in the cluttered bungalow that serves as his head office. “As an organic farmer, you have to be out ahead of the game. You have to be studying insect ecology and soil microbiology. It’s fascinating, challenging, and intellectually stimulating.”

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Going to Extremes | Darra Goldstein

from Gastronomica 11:3

Many years ago, at the height of the Cold War, I landed a job with the United States Information Agency as a guide for exhibitions about American life that toured the Soviet Union. The great Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Krushchev took place at the first exhibition, “The American Home,” in 1959. The year I signed on, in 1978, the theme was “Agriculture USA.”

Our stateside training took us to Illinois, where we endured ten intensive days of lectures on topics from agricultural credit and finance in the U.S. to plant diseases and new methods of irrigation. We also visited several mega-farms that demonstrated the latest technology. There was no question: American productivity would leave the Soviet farmers in the mud. I remember my first sight of an industrial pig farm—the huge holding ponds for waste, the cold, metal-slatted floors where a desperate sow tried to nurse her piglets comfortably. From the heartland we headed to the usda Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, to learn about plant genetics and germ plasm. Our training ended at Esskay, a Baltimore slaughterhouse and sausage factory, which makes the official hotdogs for the Orioles and the u.s. Naval Academy. I can still hear the screams of the pigs as they were shunted onto the disassembly line.

My job in the Soviet Union was to tout the glories of efficient American agriculture to the poor, hungry Russians. And so, for a good year of my life I participated in—and to some degree believed in—our industrial food system. My thinking has changed drastically over the years (I think it began at that Baltimore slaughterhouse), but even though my politics and eating practices are aligned—we make sure that our meat is local and humanely killed—I’ve lately been troubled by how polarized the discourse about food has become. Either American food production is big and bad (“corporate farming,” “the agroindustrial complex,” or simply “Big Ag,” the abuses of which I’ve seen firsthand), or it is small and heartwarming—the farmers’ markets, the csas, greenhorns choosing the life of the soil over the corporate rat race. Our national conversation has descended into argument: Either you are on the side of might (the existing American food system), or on the side of right (the locavores or, as my husband the organic vegetable gardener calls them, the locabores). Both sides are blindered. Industrial is pitted against local; growers are either laboratory dependent or committed to “natural” practices. Such extremes lead to cynical decisions, like the waving of green and sustainable flags by corporations that are anything but environmentally concerned.

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Roasting Green Wheat in Galilee | Abbie Rosner

from Gastronomica 11:2

If you bring a meal offering of first fruits to the Lord, you shall bring new ears parched with fire, grits of the fresh grain, as your meal offering of first fruits.
—Leviticus 2:14

One brisk, spring morning last year I found myself standing hip-deep in a Galilee wheat field. I had been invited to join in preparing farike, the roasted green wheat that is a favored ingredient in the local Arab cuisine. The ripening grain hissed in the breeze. With sickle in hand, I was primed to begin.

Since its domestication over ten thousand years ago, wheat has been the primary crop and staple food in this small slice of the Fertile Crescent. Up until the mid-1900s wheat was cultivated and processed here by Palestinian farmers, fellahin, using agricultural methods almost identical to those described in the Scriptures. To this day, at a time when modern agriculture has virtually put an end to traditional farming, a small number of Galilee fellahin still carry on the age-old practice of preparing farike. Abu Salakh, the owner of the wheat field I was about to help harvest, is one of them.

My friend Balkees, from Nazareth, is herself the daughter of fellahin. For years she has been my enthusiastic guide and partner in exploring local foods in and around her home. Balkees has known Abu Salakh and his family since she was a child. In their fields, bordered by the foothills of Nazareth, the family ekes out a living in a manner as close to traditional agriculture as you can find these days. The family also grows summer vegetables—tomatoes, okra, squash, and more—on land that supports cultivation without irrigation, producing the flavorful balladi produce rarely found outside Arab markets.

Balkees with the clean farike. Photograph by Abbie Rosner ©2010

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